Imagine a Sudanese family sharing a kitchen and living room with a Burmese family and an Iraqi family. This is the reality for many internationals that share an apartment complex near Baton Rouge Community College that was originally designed as a dormitory. These families have language and cultural differences, but they have one similarity: they cannot currently return to their countries. The needs are great, and Istrouma Baptist Church has stepped in to fill the gaps. For the Istrouma church volunteers, “refugee” isn’t a word of fear or suspicion, but one that means hope and friendship.
We are living in a time of refugee crisis. Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their lives and freedom are at risk. In 2015, the number of refugees was recorded at 21.5 million according to the UN Refugee Agency. According to Pew Research, “Of the more than 70,000 refugees who have been admitted to the U.S. so far in 2016, the largest numbers have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, and Syria.”
These families arrive in Baton Rouge with financial stress, possible emotional trauma, language barriers, and cultural shock. Dwayne Pitre, the Missions pastor at Istrouma, was approached six years ago about helping out the internationals at the apartments. He points out, “Most of the larger cities have their own communities. Here in Baton Rouge, those communities aren’t established yet, so they are in need of assistance and hope.” They are in a foreign land, separated from all they know. Catholic Charities places them in apartments and works to help them get on their feet. Istrouma picks up there and extends friendship.
The relationship between Istrouma Baptist Church and refugees in these apartments may have begun with a phone call, but it has developed into a multi-faceted outreach program. When Dwayne encountered the refugee population, he didn’t know really where to begin. “How can we love them? Let’s just start with love,” he shares. “That’s what I tell other churches when they ask how to start a refugee ministry.” They started by bringing them food, rice, and Bibles. Then, they decided to go big with an outreach.
Dwayne and his team decided on a Thanksgiving outreach “because it’s a non-religious holiday.” They passed out fried turkeys and housewares like cooking utensils. Dwayne explains the presentation he gave at the first and subsequent Thanksgiving banquets, “I shared the Thanksgiving story about how the English came over from England fleeing religious persecution. The Native Americans helped the English, and we want to be like that Wampanoag tribe and help them start a new life. I then shared hope in a new spiritual life.” At this annual event, the Istrouma team shares their Christian beliefs, but throughout the year, they emphasize connection and relationship.
The ministry transformed into a resource base in its second year. After the church and volunteers helped the owner of the complex with a problem, he gave the ministry a ground floor apartment. Out of that space, “we decided to set up basically an all-inclusive help center: GED help, immigration help, tutoring. We put computers in there with voice recognition software. We set up a summer program with VBS, tutoring, an English class, and field trips,” Dwayne says.
Also within the second year, a couple in the church opened their home for barbecues. Pretty soon, the different groups began socializing. Dwayne describes those meetings, “We just talked to them. No evangelism. We are about evangelism at the Thanksgiving outreach, but at the homes, we just connect. That helped us get us further along in relationships.” The fellowship cultivated a level of trust that grew.
Istrouma also has organized a carpool team of volunteers that drive refugees who want to attend church on Sundays. Another way Istrouma has fostered a connection is by integrating the children into their sports ministry. Sponsorships and scholarships allow the kids to play on the teams for all different sports.
Terry Bracey, the ministry team leader, shares what’s going on presently, “We do English classes and literacy classes. We have many residents that can speak English, but cannot read it well, or if they can read it, cannot understand it. So we try to help them out there. We do a lot of children’s activities, getting them plugged in and keeping them active. We want them to have positive outlets. We also have people come in that need help filling out job applications or help studying for their citizenship tests. It’s always fun when someone gets their citizenship.”
Beyond benefits for the internationals, Istrouma has witnessed great growth among their own congregants. Early on, people were afraid of the refugees and scared to volunteer. Dwayne has seen that apprehension dissolve, “Now our members go over there like it’s normal. They are just people.” They understand now that fear is all about the unknown. Terry contributes, “Our volunteers are not just teaching a refugee, but a friend. A lot of them really have become our family.”
The ministry team also has learned about the many cultures represented. Eric Keaton, an intern, shares his experience, “I’ve learned a lot about mannerisms and how conversations are going between the different cultures. We have to be gracious in interactions and not heavy headed. It’s important to be flexible.” Dwayne confirms, “The Great Commission says we are to make disciples of the nations. Well, the nations are here. And it’s them.” The Refugee/International Ministry at Istrouma Baptist Church is trying to do just that by loving these displaced individuals as themselves.
Dwayne smiles when he contemplates the bond between his team and the refugee families, “It’s so fun because they’ll tell us we’re their family. We’re their community. We’re the bright spot in their life. It’s pretty good.” ■